The European Council on Foreign Relations New Think Tank Hopes to Put Europe Back on the Map

The new think tank the European Council on Foreign Relations hopes to steer the European Union back onto the center of the world stage. Its 50 founding members include leading European intellectuals such as Timothy Garton Ash, Joschka Fischer, Brian Eno and Rem Koolhaas.

By Cameron Abadi

People in Berlin celebrate the EU's 50th birthday in March 2007. A new think tank hopes to put Europe back on the world map.

People in Berlin celebrate the EU's 50th birthday in March 2007. A new think tank hopes to put Europe back on the world map.

The European Union is 50 years old this year, and two years into its mid-life crisis; ever since the resounding French and Dutch "no" votes against the European Constitution, the bloc has languished in stagnation, paralyzed by indecision and a lack of confidence.

"The EU continues to underperform on the world stage," wrote former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari in an Oct. 1 editorial in the Financial Times. "(But) a strong European voice in favor of human rights, democracy and international law will not just benefit Europeans; it will be good for the world."

Fischer and Ahtisaari wrote the editorial to announce the founding of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a new think tank intended to steer the EU back onto the center of the world stage. "Our goal is to create a common strategic culture on the continent," says Mark Leonard, the Council's executive director.

Modeled along the lines of the American Council on Foreign Relations, the ECFR, which will be officially launched in Berlin on Nov. 9, is formally independent of the EU government. Nonetheless, it hopes to exert influence in the hallways of Brussels. By drafting and publishing reports on current hot topics, as well as on longer-term strategic issues, Council members and analysts see themselves as filling an otherwise unoccupied niche. "Brussels spends more money on cleaners than it does on people thinking about European foreign policy," British historian and founding ECFR member Timothy Garton Ash told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview.

The initiative gained momentum earlier in the year, when American philanthropist George Soros, dissatisfied with the course of American foreign policy, made a commitment to a generous donation for the founding of a European think tank. Fifty prominent Europeans were then recruited to sign-on as founding members. A list of those founders reads like an eclectic European all-star team: As well as Fischer, Ahtisaari, and Garton Ash, the list features star Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, British musician Brian Eno and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the new head of the International Monetary Fund. Last week, the Council opened fully-staffed offices in seven European cities: London, Paris, Berlin, Sofia, Warsaw, Rome and Madrid.

A broad outlines of the group’s advocacy can be found in the "Statement of Principles," the group’s charter statement. The group will advocate for further EU enlargement that includes Turkey, a strategic emphasis on human rights and cooperation at the UN, and a unified and self-confident approach to Europe’s neighbors, above all, to the newly resurgent Russia.

But, convincing 27 independent nation states to sign on to any effort is, of course, easier said than done. The problem is exacerbated by the loss of confidence that has set in among Europeans in recent years. "At the moment, we don’t have one European policy towards Russia, we have five different ones," admits Garton Ash. In their editorial, an exasperated Fischer and Ahtisaari point out that, during last year’s war between Israel and Lebanon, "25 European ministers -- each from a different country -- traveled to Beirut, delivering mixed messages."

The first step for Europe, according to Leonard, will be to pass the new EU Reform Treaty that was agreed on during Germany’s EU presidency earlier this year, which aims at streamlining institutional arrangements in Brussels. Then, after excess bureaucratic red tape has been cleared away, the Council will work to restore confidence in the communal European project.

"I hope that we contribute to creating a more informed and inspired public," Leonard says. "People should know that the history of the European Union is a miracle. It is the biggest process of peaceful regime change ever."

Leonard is also quick to emphasize, though, that a strengthened EU does not spell the end of the transatlantic alliance. "The European Council on Foreign Relations is not an anti-American initiative," he says. "In fact, it can strengthen the alliance, to know that, as partners, we have different things we can bring to bear on different problems."

And whereas only a few years ago, policy makers in Washington were actively trying to split the continent into an "Old" and a "New" Europe, the US now sees the EU in a different light. "America is in panic mode," says Charles Kupchan, senior fellow for Europe Studies at the American Council on Foreign Relations. "It will take allies wherever it can get them."

He explains that there used to be worries in the US that a strong EU would diminish NATO. "But, now, the major concern is whether Europe actually has the warm bodies, and the will to use them in military projects," he says. Some members of the Council may begin advocating for a stronger independent EU military, but for now, much of their advocacy will, by necessity, be centered on diplomacy.

The ECFR has already begun its diplomatic initiatives. In April of this year, as talk in Turkey circulated of a possible military coup against the elected national government, the founding members of the ECFR issued a memorandum speaking out against the military’s plans. The letter, which was published in the International Herald Tribune, received significant attention in Turkey, headlining newscasts. Observers in the country said the statement helped to defuse tensions.

Cem Özdemir, a European parliamentarian from Germany and one of the founding members of the ECFR, is convinced that that effort is a sign of things to come for the Council, as well as for the EU. "It really shows that Europe can have clout in the world," he says. "We just need to begin using it."

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